Monday 28 October 2013

Bluestone 42 - Field Notes No. 3 - Magazines

When you’re writing a sitcom, you’re creating a world. And when you’re actually putting that world onto the screen, you have to think about everything. And I mean everything.

The script says:
Mac runs into the cookhouse with a porn mag, being chased by Rocket.
Rocket (Scott Hoatson)
It’s two squaddies. So far, so believable. What are they wearing? Have they just been on ops? Don’t worry too much – the costume department are all over this, and continuity will make sure it all matches up.

But the props department look at this and think ‘Porn mag? What type of porn mag? Is it proper full-on porn? Or a lads mag, which is not quite the same thing? And, crucially, what is the porn mag called?’

You can’t just use existing magazine without permission and/or paying someone and so you have to make up a name.  Fake pornographic magazines are always called something ridiculous like Big and Bouncy, but that just feels fake (about as fake as those things that are billed as big and bouncy). The props department will have a few ideas, but they’ve got 1001 other props to sort out. Ultimately, you have to approve something – or more likely think of something yourself. And it can’t be something that’s already the name of a magazine that happens to be about something else.

Ideally, you don't want a magazine title that's funny, satirical, creepy or open to misinterpretation as it'll get in the way of the scene, the dialogue and the jokes. Remember, by the time you're on set, you're ironing. You want the jokes you've written to stand out, and you want the background to be remain background. Doing two jokes at once is almost as bad as not doing any joke at all. (Discuss).

Naming porn mags is something I’ve now found myself doing on two occasions on the set of Bluestone 42. In Series 1, we ended up with a magazine called Racquel’s Choice, which, for some reason, I found pleasing. It seemed to me that this was a magazine started in the 1970s with had a bit of history to it. But Richard Hurst, my co-writer, was never that convinced but we had to settle on something fairly swiftly. In the end, you hardly saw it anyway. Richard's happier with the magazine title in Series Two, though. And you’ll just have to wait and see what it’s called. 

Thursday 17 October 2013

Bluestone 42 - Field Notes No. 2 - Ironing

So, today Bluestone 42 was a blend of notes, rewriting, read through, more notes and more rewrites.  Richard and I were doing the ironing.

What is ironing?

Pic by ItsGreg via Flickr
Overall, the scripts seem to be in good shape - if I do say so myself, but you'll be the judge ultimately. But every scripts has wrinkles and creases that need smoothing out. What kind of wrinkles are they? There a lines that don't quite sound natural, or feel annoyingly long and need trimming, or have already been trimmed to much and don't make sense. An off-hand line that implies the story is going to go one way, it isn't. And that doesn't feel nicely surprising, quite annoying.

The scripts have been heavily rewritten six or seven times in the last six months - and tinkered with a dozen times more. There are lines that made sense three drafts ago, but aren't right now, and need tweaking. Jokes have been added. Some moved. Others deleted and a mental note made to use another time, context permitting. We try to operate a No Joke Left Behind policy so one or two jokes from scenes or bits several drafts ago have been reinstated.

Sometimes what was a joke turns out to be the set up to a better joke. Sometimes you improve a line which is now a better line that the joke that follows it - so you're probably going to cut that second joke - unless you need it to move things along, in which case, it's feels a bit eggy since it's not as good as the joke before it so you now need to de-joke that second line. Or find a way of cutting it so it's all silky smooth. (But you don't iron silk, right?)

There is always the temptation to back off, go easy and assume you can fix things on the day. When you're shooting 7 pages a day, there's no little time to fix things. Fix them now. The day of the shoot itself will throw up problems of it's own. There's also the temptation you can fix it in the edit. You can't. If you don't have the shots, you really can't do anything about it. It needs to be fixed now.

It takes ages, your brain turns to mush and sometimes you just want it be over. A bit like actual ironing. But it's worth it.

Wednesday 16 October 2013

Bluestone 42 - Field Notes No. 1

So, Bluestone 42 is back on TV. Series 1 is being repeated on BBC1 on Friday nights after Graham Norton. Tell your friends.

Those mountains in the background of the show are not Afghanistan. I knew you'd be shocked. Anyone who's been to South Africa would probably recognise them straight away. As would anyone who's watched the credit to the end, but the only people who do that work in television, looking for someone to resent or blame for what they've just seen.

So I'm currently writing this blogpost in Stellenbosch as we begin filming Series 2. And I'll be posting a few despatches from our pretend frontline, not as a way of trailering the series, but as a way of showing what a writer gets up to on set and seeing what we can glean from that, short of lessons in coping with tiredness, bored and passive aggressive rage coupled with thinking of brand new jokes that you somehow manage to film on the fly before cutting them in the edit several weeks later.

The highly successful and thoroughly delight Sam Bain (Peep Show, Fresh Meat and everything else) says that:
Being a writer on set is like standing next to a photocopier during a seven-week-long printout. It's repetitive and often boring and not the best use of your time, but if you walk away there's always the chance of a catastrophic paper jam.
This is a brilliant description in many ways, but there's obviously much more to be said. I often describe the job as arguing over prepositions. It's fiddling with lines, tweaking them so that they make sense, sound right, feel natural and all that. In fact, you're essentially ironing. I shall explain what I mean by that next time.